Michael Annett feels like ‘I belong here’ after best start of Xfinity career

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If Michael Annett‘s dog could talk.

The owner of three dogs, Annett has had Paisley, a miniature golden doodle, for 13 years.

That’s more than the entirety of his full-time NASCAR career, which began in 2009.

Along with his girlfriend at the time, Paisley was a passenger in Annett’s car in February during the seven-hour drive back from Daytona International Speedway a day after Annett scored his first career Xfinity Series win.

“She’s seen it all,” Annett told NBC Sports. “I’m sure she was pinching herself, too. It was just pretty special to have that time in the car, honestly. It wasn’t a bad thing I drove because it gave me those seven hours to really digest everything we did the day before is pretty special.”

Annett’s win locked him into the Xfinity playoffs, which he was unable to take part in last year in his second season with JR Motorsports. Annett and what was then the No. 5 team finished 16th in a season that saw Annett work with two crew chiefs for most of the campaign’s 33 races.

The second crew chief, the man who leads Annett’s No. 1 team now, was Travis Mack.

A former car chief at Hendrick Motorsports for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne’s crew chief at Leavine Family Racing, Mack joined Annett’s team after 19 races had been completed.

The change came as the series entered Annett’s worst stretch of races.

“He came in and we had three road courses (Mid-Ohio, Road America, Watkins Glen) and Bristol right away,” Annett said. “I told him leading up to it, ‘This is where I’m the worst, road courses. I’m sorry they’re throwing you to the wolves like this.'”

Annett didn’t finish better than 12th at the road courses, but he snagged a seventh-place finish at Bristol, his first top 10 through 22 races. He’d round out the season with three, including a ninth in the finale in Miami.

“We left Homestead everybody was just really pumped for February to come,” Annett said.

Annett approached the ensuing offseason differently than at any other point in his career.

“A lot of guys when you leave Homestead we kind of scatter,” Annett said. “Honestly, the whole offseason I was at the shop almost every day. Team lunches with guys, dinners with the guys. The crew chief, Travis Mack and I, working out every morning together. Just always bouncing ideas back and forth and if it wasn’t about racing it was team camaraderie and just building that relationship, wanting to make sure everyone on that 1 team’s going to hold the end of the rope for you if you’re hanging by it. That’s what you need, you gotta to have everybody bought into the same goal and I think just building that relationship and unity`has been a huge benefit for us.”

It didn’t just benefit Annett at Daytona.

After eight races, Annett is off to the best start of his NASCAR career. He has two top fives (Daytona and Las Vegas) and five top 10s, two shy of the seven total he had when he returned to Xfinity from Cup in 2017.

“Going to Atlanta and being fast in practice, didn’t have the best race, finished 12th. Last year at that point, man, we’d be high-fiving for a 12th,” Annett said. “Just continued to grow and it’s still continuing to grow. We’re not even close to where we want to be right now.”

Annett’s performance in 2018 came back to bite him early in the season when two of the first three races had qualifying rained out. That caused the field to be established by last year’s owner points. He started 16th at Atlanta and Las Vegas.

As a result Annett missed out on getting more stage points than he thought he was capable of.

“That put us in a pretty big hole right away,” Annett said. “But even those races, honestly is when we got the most (12 total). It’s hard to say. I’m not a genie or anything, but I feel like we’d have more bonus points at this point, but I still feel like those were some of our best races for some reason.”

With his Daytona win and being locked into the playoffs, Annett’s team has taken gambles he’s never been able to, like staying out on old tires in the middle of Stage 1 at Richmond. It didn’t work out and Annett finished the race in 13th.

“It took a little bit (of adjusting) just because I was hungry for those top fives and when you don’t have a top-five car you know if it doesn’t work out you’re going to be outside the top 10,” Annett said. “That part’s been tough. Really had to get in my head and figure out what’s going to help us go through rounds in the playoffs. Once I really got that in my head it was easy.”

What has Annett learned about himself as a driver in the months since Mack was brought on board?

“I think that just that I belong here,” Annett said. “At some point you beat yourself down long enough you start to wonder if you remember how to drive a race car or if you belong. But once you start to show that consistency and you’re passing cars that you know that could have a chance to win a race and you’re driving by them, it’s moments like that. When you’re driving past race-winning cars that’s when you start to get that confidence and ‘Yeah, you still remember how to do this.'”